Matt Mighell’s humble camp became the last one remaining on a stretch of road just outside of Lynnwood within the last week. It sits across Ash Way from an expansive wetland that, up until recently, about 20 people called home. A sign reading “Please help us find a good home” hung from his tent.
Many people residing outdoors north of Alderwood Mall have lost the spots they’ve called home for years after multiple homeless encampments in unincorporated Snohomish County have been disbanded. Residents and advocates say raids were conducted by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO) while department representatives are denying these charges.
Some of the dozens of displaced residents claim their tents and tarps were slashed. And after being booted, they sought help from local organizations such as the Hand Up Project and New Heart Ministries.
The weekly dinner held at the Park Ridge Community Church on Maltby Road in Bothell had more people in attendance than typical on April 10, a chunk of them newcomers, said organizer Mike Naramor. After their tent shelters were destroyed, some of the displaced attended the gathering. It was a safe place to get a meal.
Robert Smiley is the founder of the Hand Up Project, which provides transportation, material assistance and aid to the unsheltered in Snohomish County. He was alerted to the alleged removals off Ash Way on April 10.
“We loaded up our trucks and came running down here,” he said.
Multiple encampments along Ash Way and 164th Street Southwest appeared to have been broken up as of April 11. Camping sites hidden in the forest and out of sight from the road appear abandoned, with half-full propane tanks, trash and living materials scattered across the ground. In some camps, needles lay on the forest floor. Tarps, sun covers and tents at various sites showed obvious cut marks, lending credibility to the claims of multiple residents and advocates who said the camp was swept in recent days.
Numerous laminated signs remain posted on the trees in the area. Some state that the area is a private property and that the owner has signed a trespass letter on file with SCSO. The sign warns that those on the premises may be arrested or criminally trespassed and that the owner will be conducting a cleanup. Any property will be treated as trash. And people found on the property on or after April 2 are subject to physical arrest and booking at Snohomish County Jail for trespassing. On the sign, a number is listed for the homeless seeking assistance and directs callers to the sheriff’s office.
Nearby, other signs declare that the parcel is owned by Snohomish County and is an active mitigation site, one that houses native vegetation the county is required to protect. The signs were issued by the county’s Transportation and Environmental Services department.
“County staff will be visiting this site monthly,” the sign reads. “If we note individuals camping on the site, the sheriff’s office will be contacted immediately.”
On top of these camps, Smiley said other locations to the north, near 128th Street Southwest, which is in unincorporated Snohomish County between Lynnwood and Everett, had also been swept in recent days. And they are unified in who they say is conducting these acts.
“Everyone out there’s saying the sheriff’s the one coming and doing this,” Smiley said.
When contacted for this story, the SCSO communications team, including communications director Shari Ireton and Sgt. Ryan Boyer, denied that deputies disbanded encampments, adding that deputies may do enforcement warrants.
Representatives from SCSO suggested it may have been the Lynnwood Police Department (LPD), but when asked in person, LPD special operations officer Justin Gann said the property in question is in unincorporated Snohomish County and that they would not conduct policing actions there. Several plots where encampments were broken up along Ash Way are county-owned parcels.
SCSO communications specialist Courtney O’Keefe said deputies did not remove homeless camps, but also said no other law enforcement agencies would have had jurisdiction to do so. And while the county denies that these happen, county code is in place for cleanup action.
“Public works posts the notices following county code 5090, which gives a 14-day notice that the area is scheduled for cleanup. After the 14-day period, a company that contracts with public works comes and cleans up the area,” O’Keefe said in an email. “On the day of the cleanup, a deputy is at the scene to ensure safety for the public works contracted cleanup crew. The deputy does not participate in the cleanup of the camp, that is only done by the contract company.”
A neighbor living along Ash Way said she had seen deputies providing security for workers in orange vests over the past two weeks as they cleared garbage from the wooded areas.
On April 15, public works spokesperson Fay Lim said the department does not conduct cleanups. Instead, they come in after the sheriff’s office has removed people from the sites.
“It is the sheriff’s job to come in contact with those people, to notify them, to help them with those kind of things. Our role is cleanup,” she said. “Our role is not the enforcer. Our job is to respond when the sheriff reaches out to us.”
One woman, a resident on Ash Way, said during the alleged removal, her tent was cut open while she was inside of it. She said she heard people announcing the action, but needed more time to gather her belongings for herself and her dog before the tent was cut open. The encampment along Ash Way stretches through a wetland and other camps can be accessed from Alderwood Mall Parkway next to a nearby Fred Meyer.
The Alderwood Mall Parkway site — a place described as one of the largest camps in the area — was left desolate, with belongings strewn about on the ground, spanning far back on trails and paths leading into the trees. On the parcels, which the county website shows are a mix of private and county owned just outside of Lynnwood city limits, tarps and tents showed the same clean-cut markings present at other sites. And no one to be found.
Mighell runs a smaller camp across Ash Way to the south. His camp sits on private property and Mighell said he has permission from the property owner to be there. Mighell tries to run a clean camp without drug use. Since people were swept from sites across the street, his camp has grown larger. Mighell said deputies came before the action and told people they would be clearing the site in a few days.
“And then they came in and enforced and flooded this whole place, the whole road, hit every camp, hit all the ones on the Fred Meyer side too,” Mighell said, adding that a number of camps had structures, such as sheds, that were ripped apart. And there were more deputies at the camps over the past week than he’d seen in six years living in the area.
Karen Law, co-founder of the nonprofit Isaiah 58 House, said she had heard from residents of the Ash Way camps that there had been some sort of raid, particularly from Mighell. Law said SCSO deputies had disbanded camps in the area in the past, but that there was usually more notice before it happened.
The Ash Way encampment has had unsheltered people living in it for more than a decade, said Ann Brown, who does homeless outreach for New Heart Ministries. The Ash Way camps had a number of people who lived there for long periods of time as well as seasonal drifters and people who were on their way to Everett after being pushed out of Seattle.
“It’s a fairly well established community and, as I said, you have the different groups. They know each other and some of them cross, some of them don’t even cross…You know they might give them a wave and the others are extremely tight…checking on you if need this or that. ‘Are you out of propane? Are you out of food?’ It’s a whole society within a society,” Brown said.
And in the surrounding areas, she estimates about 200 people are living unsheltered. She noted a change of tone on the street since last summer: a switch from wanting to help people, to pushing them out of the tree-covered areas without additional services or followup. She has paid witness to encounters between law enforcement and those living outdoors.
“I don’t know exactly what it is,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s more awareness. I don’t know if it’s more public outcry because of the thievery and car prowls and mail and package theft…I don’t know what’s going on. But it started last summer to where it seemed like there was more push to get people out of the way. Get them gone.”
The “push,” Brown said, is causing the homeless to be uprooted, and over time, having no space left on which to camp. As buildings are built, and forests minimized, the less area people have to live. It’s getting to the point of crisis, she said.
“Like I said, this is all they have,” Brown said. “They don’t have homes to store things in and when you tear it all apart like that, especially in the rainy season, everything gets wet, everything is destroyed. They have no cover and nothing for warmth…they’re leaving them very, very exposed.”